THE Irish and drink: what’s that all about?
That was the question posed recently by Joe Horgan in his provocative piece in his regular column.
In his piece, Joe considered reasons for our obsession with alcohol – poverty, Catholicism, colonialism, even our cherished communal instinct was brought to check.
Even more than all of these things, however, I would argue that the stereotyping of the Irish with alcohol has its origins in a political narrative that sought to undermine the capacity of the Irish to contribute, and often lead, in the fledgling economic societies of the western world.
From the early days of modern Toryism in Britain through to the US politics of ‘Tammany Hall’, political opponents or opportunists had always sought to caricature and demonise the Irish as witless, violent thugs who, in the words of Disraeli, were a ‘wild, reckless, indolent race’.
This narrative, coupled with a Victorian belief of intemperance and ignorance and violence, were popularised in the pages of Punch, the London Illustrated News or Harper’s Weekly, and became the standard 19th century presentation of the Irish, on both sides of the Atlantic.
One could argue that colonialism, or perhaps more accurately the legacy of a corrupt local administration of the law, played some role in nurturing our obsession with alcohol.
Since the 1830’s, the liberalisation of the licensing laws in Ireland, allowed for a ludicrous proliferation of licensed premises, which saw 18,750 licences operating for 4.5 million people by 1902.
For instance, in one Roscommon village of 200 people, 17 licenced premises existed; an arrangement replicated throughout the country.
Religion, and the rise of the temperance movement, it could be argued, played a role in curbing the impact of these prevailing market forces.
One only has to think of the 19th century Fr Mathew movement and its 20th century successor, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, which by the 1940s had over half a million ‘pledges’, to understand the societal barrier to alcohol use too.
This movement, coupled with a political coalesce with religious doctrine, meant that 1960 Ireland’s drinking was quite moderate at 4.82 litres per capita.
However, the lure of the ‘pint of plain’ in many ways was equal match for any notional sin of intemperance.
Given the extraordinary prevalence of licenced premises within the community and given the poor standards of much of urban housing in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is not surprising that the pub, as we know it today, was the central contact for many communities – well for men, anyhow!
Today, our devotion to alcohol has largely been shaped by a new, seemingly virtuous, alliance: a progressive state liberalising its economy, coupled with revolutionary marketing practices of a shareholder-driven industry.
This confluence of dynamic forces have driven what I would argue is a fabricated drinking culture, which shifted Ireland from being the second lowest consumers of alcohol in Europe in 1989 to the second highest by the beginning of the 21st century.
Our previously closed, highly regulated economy was transformed over a generation from the 1960s onwards, to become an open and free market economy.
This movement has undoubtedly benefitted all our society, however it also saw crucial restrictions on alcohol demand: price, placement and promotion, weakened or dismantled.
In the same timeframe, alcohol producers shifted from simply selling products to selling a brand proposition, fashioned on understanding the emotional needs of its consumer and leading social norms.
Today, Ireland’s drinkers are sold the myth that every occasion whether familial, cultural or sporting, must now be accompanied by alcohol, ensuring a ‘cradle to the grave’ alcohol experience is guaranteed for most of our citizens.
The state has facilitated this shift by ensuring the price and availability of alcohol products are now both ubiquitous and affordable.
Alcohol is now easily available practically on every street corner; from petrol stations to post offices, no shopping experience is complete without its presence.
Since 1998, wine and spirit off-licences have grown from 1,063 to 5,389.
As two thirds of all alcohol is now purchased in such retail settings, hyper discounting, fuelled by the state’s liberalising of price controls in 2005, ensures that in many incidences alcohol can be purchased, day or night, for as little as what you might pay for milk or water.
Equally, the state has done little to curb the tsunami of alcohol promotion and marketing that washes through society daily, enrolling a new generation to the myth of glorious alcohol lives.
Recent legislation enacted does provide means to transform this situation, however the new alliance is strong and the Minister of Health has failed to produce the commencement regulations.
In 2019, when Ireland drank 10.8 litres pure alcohol per capita – that’s every man, woman and child over 15 years - it is estimated that €115m was spent by alcohol producers and retailers on driving our drinking habits.
A major challenge for those crafting the prevention messaging on alcohol harm is breaking through this wall of misleading promotion to ensure the health risk is understood.
The prevalence of alcohol use disorders is almost 15 per cent corresponding to 578,000 drinkers across the whole of the population, in the meantime 200,000 children, every day, navigate the chaos of problem alcohol use in their homes.
Shockingly the prevalence of alcohol use disorders in our young people aged 15-24 years is at 37 per cent, with around 45,000 suffering a severe problem; although we should not be surprised given that 93 per cent are committed drinkers on entering adulthood.
The simple reality is that in Ireland, as result of decades of a laissez faire approach, we continue to drink too much, too often and this greatly impacts the quality of our health, the lives of others and the social and economic wellbeing of the nation.
More fundamentally, in simply ignoring this reality in defence of our individual rights, we consistently choose to sustain a fabricated commercial ruse in the name of some notional cultural signature.
What’s that all about: surely, we are better than that?
Eunan McKinney is Head of Communications and Advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland